Now here is a pleasant view: Rising steeply just across the road from my balcony at the Hotel Jagdhof in Neustift, in the Austrian Tirol, is an Alpine meadow, a broad expanse of deep green dotted with wildflowers. Sheep and goats move slowly across its slope, grazing on the spring grass. From somewhere below comes the sound of cowbells as a farmer moves his herd along the valley. It is peaceful, pastoral, the kind of picture that invites passersby to pause and share the moment.
But off to the west, the vista changes dramatically; the fertile hillsides give way to an array of jagged peaks. Looking down the notch of the valley, as though it were the sight of a rifle, I fix my gaze on the highest and most distant of these peaks, the Stubai Glacier. Unlike the grassy slopes nearby, the ice-covered monolith does not beckon; instead, it looms lifeless and barren, a place of endless winter.
Yet for some it is Nirvana, a glacial paradise with vast, open bowls and precipitous chutes covered by snow year-round. In the vernacular of Warren Miller films, terrain such as this, lying high above the tree line, can move skiers to parachute from helicopters and go schussing down mountainsides miles from civilization, where the slightest mishap can spell disaster. But at the Stubai Glacier, you encounter dangers rarely associated with skiing. There is, for instance, always the chance of developing gout from the rich Tyrolean cuisine served at the Gamsgarten, a popular restaurant that stands halfway up the slopes. You also risk being run over by a bikini-clad local working on her tan and her wedeln at the same time. And it can be unwise to tarry at the bar at the glacier’s 11,000-foot-high summit, where one shot of schnapps can feel like three.
None of this is to imply that the Stubai is glacier light, something other than the real thing. But given the amenities, the scenery, the variety of slopes, the sun-swept bowls, and the downright ethereal setting, the icy precipices overlooking the Stubai Valley could make the most intrepid downhill racer long for summer, which is perhaps the best time to ski here.
If, its myriad charms notwithstanding, the Stubai remains little known to Americans, it is because glacier skiing is widely misunderstood in this country. Often it is depicted as an exotic form of outdoors masochism, one that requires its devotees to travel to remote, perilous climes and undergo extreme rigor and discomfort in their quest for summer snow. It is quite likely that more skiers have sighted Bigfoot than have schussed a glacier in the contiguous United States. In a territory of more than 3 million square miles, only Oregon’s Mount Hood claims to be equipped for summer skiing.
By contrast, in Austria, a country that covers about 1 percent of the area of the Lower 48, no fewer than eight glaciers are equipped with lifts: the Mölltaler (in Carinthia), Kitzsteinhorn (Salzberg), and Dachstein (Styria), and Kauner, Pitz, Ötz, Hintertux, and Stubai in the Tirol. Of these, the Stubai is the only glacier belonging to the Olympia SkiWorld Innsbruck, a network that includes some of the world’s most famous slopes. The nearby Axamer Lizum hosted the men’s and women’s slalom in the 1964 and 1976 Olympics, while the Patscherkofel was the site of Franz Klammer’s death-defying downhill run to the gold medal in the 1976 Winter Games, one of the most thrilling athletic performances of all time. The Schlick 2000, Seegrube, Hafelekar, Hahnenkamm, and Glungezer also are names worth dropping on the après-ski circuit. Still, the Stubai has one thing its better-known siblings lack: year-round snow.
The way to the glacier leads through Neustift, which lies perhaps a dozen miles away, and the village’s quaintness—the shepherds’ huts on the hillsides, the balconied farmhouses with roofs held down by rocks, the men in their high-cut, leather-trimmed Tyrolean jackets, and girls in dirndls—is exactly what one would expect in rural Austria. Even the Jagdhof, a five-star Relais & Châteaux property, is quaint rather than grand, with balconies outside and ornately carved wood panels in the dining rooms and bar.
But one floor below the hotel’s lobby, the mood changes from rustic to indulgent, even, you might say, decadent. In fact, while some of the hotel’s guests are here for the rugged outdoors, others plan to spend their entire visit inside. “The most popular reason for coming to the Jagdhof is the spa,” says a young lady at the reception desk. Indeed, as I would later see, the hotel—which won the Relais & Châteaux Spa Trophy for 2005—offers every form of pampering imaginable. Besides whirlpools, saunas, and mud baths for two, there is the amethyst steam bath grotto, where violet-colored lights are said to drive away fear, anger, and homesickness. Another, the saltwater inhalation chamber, appears to have been lifted out of a medieval dungeon, with rocks heating over an open flame, chains, and old wooden buckets. Another treatment features a large clamshell-like device that closes on its occupant before spraying him or her with numerous cleansing lotions.
“We produced a brochure about our spa but we had to do it all over again,” the receptionist confides. “We discovered that our German-speaking clientele liked to see pictures with people in them while the English-speaking guests didn’t like seeing other people in the spa.” So saying, she passes over a brochure obviously intended for the German audience; in it, a woman is standing nude next to a Roman amphora. “Well, what do you think?” she asks.
“Sehr schön,” I answer.
Sunrise has transformed the glacier into a dazzling, rough-cut diamond, as my guide, Walter Sprenger, and I approach it through the valley in his Audi 100 en route to the first gondola at Mutterberg station. Besides being a guide and ski instructor, the fortyish Sprenger also works as a geologist, a profession whose skills come in handy when you spend much of your day on a glacier. Actually, he explains, the Stubai is not one, but five separate ice sheets that range from 130 to 360 feet thick at their highest elevations and flow from two to seven meters per year. “During the last ice age the glacier was also 1,000 feet thicker than it is now,” Sprenger says. “It reached almost to Munich.” The ice is receding, but not because of global warming, he says. It is because there was a snow shortage in the 1700s. “Glacial cycles are thousands of years long,” Sprenger explains. “The Stubai is shrinking six meters each year, so in 50 years it will be much smaller than it is today.”
And after that? “Who knows,” he answers.
At the valley station we queue up with perhaps a hundred other skiers for the gondola ride to the middle station, Fernau. Only a few minutes pass before we stash our skis and poles on the gondola’s rack and begin our ride up the cable. “This is a perfect time of year to go skiing,” says Sprenger. “There are only about 3,000 skiers a day on the glacier in summer compared to 10,000 per day in winter. You have much more room, smaller lift lines, and more virgin powder in the morning.”
Although now known mostly for its skiing, the Stubai Valley has been a fashionable destination since the early 16th century, when Emperor Maximilian I, the Hapsburg monarch who was an avid hiker and huntsman, became so fond of the region that he endowed a chapel in the glacier valley. His subjects were so grateful that they renamed their village Neustift, which means “New Church.” A few centuries later, in 1891, when the idea of strapping boards to your feet and sliding down a mountainside still would have met with incredulity, the Neustift Mountain Guides Association was formed to lead climbers and tourists safely up and down the glacier. It was no coincidence that the Stubai Valley became famous for its steel products, especially its ice axes and crampons.
In 1973, the world having discovered the thrill of plummeting down snowy mountainsides in form-fitting togs and tight-fitting boots, the Stubai got its first lift, which was built by planting the supports into the moving ice sheet instead of the earth beneath. Now possessing 24 lifts and 35 miles of ski runs, the Stubai has been dubbed “the glacier with a thousand possibilities.”
As the second gondola climbs, the forested mountainsides below the tree line to either side emerge as a network of trails for hiking, mountain biking, climbing, and nature walks. A couple of hundred feet off the valley floor, Sprenger points out a steep trail devoid of ice or snow. That, he says, is where he once competed in a seven-mile marathon.
But a marathon is not seven miles, I remind him.
“When you’re running uphill, it is,” he says.
Sprenger then points to one of his favorite spots, a large rock that stands some 10 feet from the gondola’s path. “In winter there’s not enough forage on the highest slopes, so the mountain goats come down lower to find food,” he says. “I see the same goat on this rock every year.”
Farther along, I see a skier dropping to one knee on a ski, then repeating this maneuver on the other ski, sending a rooster tail of snow in his wake as he genuflects his way down the slope. “That’s the telemark,” explains Sprenger. “It’s the oldest known style of skiing. For decades nobody did it. Now it’s become very fashionable on the Stubai. But it’s very difficult.”
Then why, I ask, do people do it?
“Because,” Sprenger says, “it’s very difficult.”
With that, we kick off the lift for the first run of the day. It is not an especially challenging run, but the bumps are perfect for effortless unweighting. Eventually, however, a squadron of helmeted 3-year-olds, their hands clasped behind their backs, wends their way around me on their way down to the next lift station. Although that experience is exasperating, not to mention humbling, my overall performance is not bad for my first run in months. “How did I look?” I ask Sprenger as we hop onto a gondola that will take us to the next plateau.
“Very lifelike,” he tells me.
So far, so good, but there seems to be one thing missing from the Stubai; I had halfway expected to find glistening, crystalline chutes beneath my skis. Instead, once we have ascended beyond the lowest slopes, ice is nowhere to be seen. But ominous signs indicate its presence.
As we continue our ascent on a third gondola, a depression perhaps 50 feet by 10 feet becomes visible in the snow below. It does not appear to be very deep, but still it is cordoned off with a bright yellow rope. “Crevasse,” explains Sprenger. “They move as the ice flows, but we track them and keep them marked off.” When the gondola lifts us still higher, we see a treeless swath that has been cut into the flank of a neighboring mountain. “Avalanche,” Sprenger notes. “It could have happened 50 years ago. But we know these slopes better today, and you can’t go anywhere near an avalanche zone.”
Glacier skiers may fear falling into crevasses or being swept up in avalanches, but they are more likely to fall prey to the weather. In sunny conditions, a sudden cloud cover can send temperatures plummeting 50 degrees in a matter of minutes. When skies are cloudless, the radiance reflecting off the snow and ice can blister a skier’s face in a fraction of the time it takes on a Caribbean beach, making sunblock an absolute necessity. However, this same radiance also can transform the Stubai into a glacial South Beach.
The weather affects the skiing in even stranger ways. “Every now and then we’ll get sand blowing here all the way from the Sahara,” says Sprenger. “We don’t like it. It colors the snow and makes it melt faster.”
The sun and temperatures create distinct snow conditions as the day progresses. In the morning the snow was dry and light; an hour later it became wetter and heavier. Now, with the sun falling below the meridian, the snow is becoming faster and less forgiving. For the last run of the day we take the cable to the summit of the Schaufelspitze, where the Jochdohle restaurant is affixed by steel beams into a huge granite outcropping, the better to keep it from sliding down the slopes and into the valley. Sprenger casts a glance at the overcast sky and frowns. “It’s too bad,” he says. “On a clear day, with binoculars, you can see all the way to Venice from here.”
Still, the combination of the altitude and the mountain panorama is literally breathtaking. Seeing me staring down a seemingly perpendicular drop along the back side of the glacier, Sprenger asks, “Well, do you think you’re ready for the Wilde Grub’n?”
The Wilde Grub’n. Now there is a trail worthy of the ski films: 6 miles of unmarked backcountry skiing all for just me, my guide, and the forces of gravity. If only I had brought a cameraman.
On the other hand, I do have an impending appointment with the giant clamshell back at the Jagdhof, and I don’t want to miss it and have the ladies at the spa think that I am afraid of the device. Anyway, as my guide himself points out, the glacier is not going anywhere. Or if it is, it is not going very fast.